The Thames Tunnel. Connecting East London

The Thames Tunnel, built between 1825 and 1843 was the first underwater tunnel in the world. It spans the Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping in the East End of London and introduced the UK to the Brunel family.



The Thames Tunnel – Connecting Wapping and Rotherhithe.

The tunnel was conceived by Marc Isambard Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and both father and son worked on this innovative construction.

Crossing the Thames.

One of the great advantages of London is the Thames. The river allowed the capital to be one of the most successful ports in the world, and many industries and port sites sprang up on its banks. But, the river also causes London some problems with access. Connecting two ports at opposite sides of the river has always been tricky, especially if they are not located close to bridges and find that water transportation is limiting.

By the 1800s, it was obvious that a land-based link between the two banks of the river would be extremely useful. There had been an attempt in the late 1700s and, in the early 1800s, a group of Cornish miners targeted Wapping and Rotherhithe as ideal locations for the entrance/exits of an underground tunnel. This group, however, found it impossible to cope with the soft ground under the Thames and their attempts to dig a tunnel kept flooding and crumbling. By this stage, it looked like an underground passageway just wasn’t feasible.

Marc Isambard Brunel and the tunnel shield

Marc Isambard Brunel refused to admit that a tunnel could not work. He had already put some thought into the process of building an underground tunnel in the early 1800s when he had tried to persuade the Tsar of Russia to build one under the river Neva.

Brunel identified the problems that the Cornish failed attempt had brought to light. He developed plans to bypass the problems with the soil by using a tunnelling shield. This device allowed men to move through the tunnel excavating earth. They then shored up their excavations, which were reinforced in turn by men laying bricks behind them. The men were protected against cave-ins, got round the soil problems and the tunnel could be built step-by-step.

A stop-start dig

By 1823, Brunel and his partner, Thomas Cochrane, drew up plans for the tunnel dig. They quickly arranged investment from private financiers, including money from the Duke of Wellington, and set up the Thames Tunnel Company to run the project. Things would not go as smoothly as they hoped.

In 1825, Brunel started to dig an entrance shaft at Rotherhithe in South London. Once this was completed, he could start to use the tunnel shield in earnest. Although this was safe way to dig out a tunnel, it was also exceedingly slow. His men could only clear around 10-12 feet a week.

The project suffered from financial problems and the directors of The Thames Tunnel Company decided to charge tourists to watch the shield work. Despite the fact that they charged a shilling per visitor and got hundreds of visitors each day, financial constraints shut down the dig in 1828.

It took until 1834 for work to start again and Brunel had to take a loan from the Treasury before he could restart. It took another five and a half years before his workers reached the other side of the Thames, and the tunnel was not opened to the public until 1843.

The Thames Tunnel took eighteen years to build all in all. It was massively over budget and massively expensive. The conditions for Brunel’s men were also fairly dire. The water that leaked through the roof as they dug through the tunnel contained sewage, which produced methane gas. This made many of them ill, including Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself. The tunnel was also prone to flooding and at least six men died in floods during its construction.

What was the Thames Tunnel used for?

Once the tunnel opened, it had to recoup some of the money spent on it. It wasn’t wide enough to take vehicles at its entrances and nobody would fund a project to make it wider. It became a pedestrian tunnel with some stalls operating as shops, attracting approximately two million visitors a year, all of whom paid a penny to walk through.

The tunnel also developed a bad reputation. Tunnel thieves would hide away in it and rob passers-by and prostitutes used it to ply their trade. By the 1860s, the East London Railway Company agreed to buy the tunnel. They wanted to use it to transport passengers and goods from Wapping to the other side of the river. This company ultimately became part of London Underground who continued to use the tunnel as part of the East London Line until the early 1960s. It is now part of the London Overground network.


View Larger Map


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Recent Comments

  • A.J.Spencer on London East End Street NamesI am looking for any information on Rosher Row ? It was still there in the 1960's as I remember taking my G/Friend of the time to meet my aunt Ett
  • JM Tubbs on Manchester Hotel | Aldersgate Street | WW2 PhotosMy great great grandfather Henry Thomas Tubbs and his business partner Joseph Lewis built this hotel and owned it for a time after it was opened. The initial cost in 1879 was around £70,000. It originally had 240 bedrooms but was expanded. There was a second main entrance on Long
  • JM Tubbs on Manchester Hotel | Aldersgate Street | WW2 PhotosYou could check the 1911 census. Either a subscription or a local studies library should have one you can use.
  • Charles Sage on History of Canning Town East LondonI was born in 1939 and lived in Beckton rd , I can rememember after the war going to the Queens theatre in poplar to see the variety shows , I think the compare was called Buttons,does anyone else remember the theatre.
  • Margaret Knight ( nee Key ) on The History of Beckton Gas WorksMy father was a stoker at the gas works and we lived in one of the company houses , 46 WinsorTerrace until I married in 1957,
  • Charles Sage on History of Canning Town East LondonPatlrick , We lived very close to Hermit rd after moving from Beckton rd in fact we drove along there this very day , we went to the cemetery to take flowers to put on my parents grave. To put it bluntly Canning Town is like a foreign country now
  • Naz on Alf Garnett East London’s Famous Resident.Barnet is not rhyming slang for Alf Garnett, it is rhyming slang for Barnett Fair, that piece of slang was in use well before Johnny Speight wrote TDUDP
  • Patrick Blake-Kerry on History of Canning Town East LondonMakes me laugh, the talk of hop picking as I ended up living in Hampshire as my mum and brother were bombed out and evacuated in 1940. They ended up in Bentley because it was the only place the driver knew outside London. Conversly having stayed and live in Bentley
  • Charlie sage on History of Canning Town East LondonHi Alfie Brown ! I remember the hop picking very well they were great times down China farm , the old huts lightig the fires going so mum could get dinner going , that long walk to the shop opposite the green hill, Bert doing the toilets , scrumping in
  • Carol Featherstone on Second World War Bombing Raid South Hallsville SchoolMy nan and grandad Pat and Emily Murphy were killed in the school leaving my mum an orphan at six she was brought up by her nan Lou McKay
  • Tim Conlan on History of Poplar East LondonGrindley and Co of 21 to 23 Broomfield Street, Poplar, London, E 1868 Company established. 1914 Tar and rosin distillers. Specialities: insulating and transformer oils, black varnishes, soluble drier preparations, motor and other greases.
  • Jane on History of Canning Town East LondonThank you, Ray, that's such a helpful reply - much appreciated.,
  • A.J.Spencer on London’s East End and The BlitzMy grand parents lived in Canning Town during the Blitz and I cannot find any trace of them on any records. I am looking especially pertaining to John William Spencer who lived at 66 Bidder St, Canning town in 1913
  • Ken Shelton on History of Canning Town East LondonHi there, I went to both of the Stratford Grammar Schools - the first one next to West Ham Park was just around the corner from where we lived, on Shirley Rd. I remember there was a tuck shop on the corner. Lots of memories from there - thanks for
  • Elaine Ford on History of Poplar East LondonDoes anyone know of a company called 'Grindleys' ? or similar, was based in Poplar in the 1940's (I believe) and was eventually pulled down. I'm writing a tribute for a gentleman who worked there, he was 99 years old. The family are not sure of the spelling of the

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 175 other subscribers.

Top